You may or may not have heard of Theresa Wallach. I know I hadn’t until recently. And her accomplishments are only greater when you recognize the time she made them.
You see, Theresa’s story wasn’t written in today’s “modern” times. Many of her accomplishments occurred during a time when women weren’t invited into the largely male motorcycling community. But she wouldn’t let her gender get in the way of achieving her motorcycling goals. And this is her story.
Theresa was born in Stowe, Buckinghamshire, England, in April 1909. She grew up near the factories that produced some famous British marques like Norton, BSA, Triumph, and AJS. She eventually got to know many of the people that worked in the factories. Even better, she met some of the companies’ engineers, test riders, and racers. Of course, she was determined to ride and was ultimately trained by her friends as well as some “of the best riders in England.”
But she was not satisfied with just riding. She was deeply interested in the machines themselves. The fact that she took apart her first engine on her bedroom floor at the age of 18 says a lot about her.
In 1928 she won an engineering scholarship at Northampton Polytechnic Institute (now known as the City University of London). For much of her study there, she was the only female engineering student.
After graduation, she joined the British engineering firm, British Thomson-Houston. That same year she became a member of the Women’s Engineering Society and wrote: “…to join is not only a pleasure but a duty to encourage more girls into the realms of science.”
By 1932, Her passion for motorcycles drove her to enter motorcycle racing at the Booklands race track. And she won numerous local competitions. However, racing apparently wasn’t enough of a challenge for Theresa. In December 1934, she and her friend Florence Blenkiron decided to depart on a motorcycle expedition of Africa. Their mount of choice? A 600cc British Panther with a sidecar and a trailer.
During their journey, the pair rode from London, England, to Capetown, South Africa. There were few roads at the time, and the route they eventually took was far from a straight line. Starting in Algeria, the journey took them through the Sahara Desert and equatorial Africa. The pair rode southeasterly towards Africa’s coast and eventually rode southwest until reaching Cape Town, South Africa.
Their ride would take them through lots of desert sand, dunes, heat, rain, and rivers, among other things. They encountered extreme climate changes, Tuareg nomads, got caught up in political upheavals, had mechanical failures, and encountered several different wild and potentially dangerous animals like lions, snakes, and gorillas.
All of these things they dealt with no backup, no additional support. It was just the two of them against all that Africa had in store. The pair traveled from oasis to oasis, sometimes arguing with the French Foreign Legion. After winning those arguments, they were allowed to pass.
Ultimately, they rode directly through the Sahara desert and across the equator without a compass. Along the way, there were many mechanical failures. One time Theresa had to build a new tow hitch for the trailer in the middle of the desert. She also performed a complete engine rebuild from scratch in Agadez Niger.
There was also a time in Tanganyika (Tanzania) that they had an accident with the only car they had seen on the road for days. Or the time they had a complete engine failure and were forced to push the bike some 25 miles. Clearly, theirs was not a trip for the faint of heart. But on July 29th, 1935, the pair rolled into Cape Town, South Africa, completing what is still a gutsy ride even on today’s modern machinery.
After successfully completing the journey, Theresa spoke at a Women’s Engineering Society meeting in England. It is reported that Theresa referred “…lightly to the endurance test of the Sahara, the wild beasts that approached sufficiently close for discomfort, though never for real, the snakes that became part of the day’s experiences, the encounters with tribes in varying degrees of civilization, the tackling of problems connected with the cycle, with water, with other provisions, including petrol, and, finally to the enthusiastic welcome at Cape Town”.
With her riding expedition of Africa complete, her abilities became well known, and she was accepted into the British Racing establishment. Later, she would pen a book of her exploits called “The Rugged Road.”
Not to be stopped, in 1939, Theresa returned to the track. There she became the first woman to earn a Gold Star at the Brooklands race track. Riding a 350cc Norton, she was able to lap the track at an average speed of over 100 mph. What’s especially exciting is that Theresa earned the Gold Star on a small displacement bike of the 1930s. In the end, Theresa had laid down a lap of 101.64 mph.
When World War II broke out, Theresa volunteered her skills as a mechanic in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (A.T.S.). And in 1942, she became the first female A.T.S. tank mechanic. As if that were not enough, Theresa took another role in the ATS as the first female dispatch rider.
After the war was over, Theresa came to the United States and toured it by motorcycle. Once she had arrived, she took varying jobs from airplane mechanic to dishwasher, staying just long enough to earn enough money to get back on the road. Ultimately, she wandered the U.S., Canada, and Mexico for two and a half years. In all, she trekked approximately 32,000 miles before returning to England.
Unfortunately, upon her return, she found that Britain’s economy was depressed as well as what she described as “narrowing horizons.” So in 1952, she returned to the U.S. and moved to Chicago. There, she was able to earn a living as a motorcycle mechanic.
At first, she was unable to find work due to her gender. But as word got around about the high quality of her work done in her own garage, a shop hired her. With years of mechanical experience behind her, she decided to open her own motorcycle dealership. Of course, it specialized in British machines.
Then in 1959, Theresa began giving motorcycle riding instruction. This new branch of her career began somewhat unexpectedly. Three Chicago businessmen came into her shop to buy BSA motorcycles for a European motorcycle trip. But their inexperience was so obvious that she refused to sell them the machines until she had taught them the fundamentals of riding. The businessmen agreed, and each took lessons until they were proficient riders. The skills later paid off as their European trip was a success.
It was after her successful training of the men that she began devoting more time to motorcycle riding instruction. In 1970, her book “Easy Motorcycle Riding” was published and met great success. Her successful book led to many TV appearances and newspaper articles, giving her more notoriety.
In 1973, Theresa sold her dealership. She moved to Phoenix, Arizona, and opened the Easy Riding Academy. She preferred teaching on a one-to-one basis. In a magazine interview, she is quoted as saying:
“Most of my work is done on an individual basis. One-to-one is still the ultimate teaching ratio. With 20 students in a class, each student is lucky to get a mere 10 minutes or so of instruction. An instructor must be there to guide and direct each person as he is performing.”
The riding school was also successful, and Theresa successfully taught hundreds of students to become safer and fundamentally better riders.
Obviously, Theresa’s love of motorcycling was a major part of her life. In an article with Road Rider Magazine, she is quoted as saying:
“When I first saw a motorcycle, I got a message from it. It was a feeling – the kind of thing that makes a person burst into tears hearing a piece of music or standing awestruck in front of a fine work of art. Motorcycling is a tool with which you can accomplish something meaningful in your life. It is an art.”
Theresa Wallach continued riding motorcycles until she was 88 years old. She was forced to give riding up due to her deteriorating eyesight. And, on April 30, 1999, she passed away. But she had lived a life full of challenge, accomplishment, and inspiration.
She worked hard to earn all her knowledge and abilities. She went on to apply them and become successful in performing them. And, she shared her knowledge and skills with the world. I think that most people would call that a life well-lived. Congratulations and thank you, Theresa, you made the world a better place, and that’s quite an accomplishment!
Images taken from film footage of Theresa’s trip.